Review: Killing Them Softly

jason stives kills ’em…

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Up until this weekend I was very unfamiliar with the work of Australian director Andrew Dominik, whose other noted work The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I had not viewed yet and depending on who I was talking to was told to avoid. It was obvious that going into his latest film Killing Them Softly, an adaptation of the 1974 crime novel Cogan’s Trade, that I could be in for a mixed bag. This made me leap immediately to one year ago when Drive was released to critical acclaim and modest success — because that film did the exact kind of polarization that I foresaw Softly ultimately doing. Unlike Drive, Killing Them Softly hasn’t been played up for box office keeps other than starring Brad Pitt, so there shouldn’t be a level of expectation to it. If you expect a witty, brash crime film you are going to be very disappointed because this is a film with no real path that, while well done where it counts, is a slow thriller that walks from Point A to Point B with only some understood purpose.

Set in 2008 New Orleans Killing Them Softly tells the tale of Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a cool, slick enforcer brought in to clean up the mess of a mobster card game that was robbed by two unfortunate nobodies as a way to frame the game’s manager. See the game manager, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) had robbed his own game a few years prior and then bragged to a few acquaintances about it so having this appear to happen again would instill in his associates that he DID actually do it again. The two would be robbers, Frankie and Russell, are lowlifes and smackheads with no ambition and their robbing of the card game, set up by Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Johnny Sacks from The Sopranos) is a quick cash grab of 30K in desperate times. However, higher-ups want to find out the truth so Cogan is responsible for finding the actual culprits and taking them out for their stupidity as well relieving Markie from the public eye for posterity sake.

I found myself very torn in my views and overall feelings of this film because many aspects I absolutely adored while others I sided with the average moviegoer in me which is important in overall appeal, something that this film lacks to frustrating levels. Killing Them Softly is one of those movies that harbors a great deal of remorse for its world and while it contains a very straight and narrow plot the characters are never hammed up for a movie structure and are just the most plain and at times very idiotic people you will ever see in a crime thriller. Despite some very low end of the stick characters the acting is pretty strong with a cast that includes Richard Jenkins as Cogan’s go to Driver guy with instructions and James Gandolfini as Mickey, a second hitman initially brought in to take care of one of the robbers. As consistent of an actor as he is Gandolfini seems to always run back to the naisely self loathing voice of Tony Soprano and here he is a man with not just a drinking problem but a pension for sleeping with every woman in the city. Brought into do a job because of track record he is a bum and incapable of doing what is asked of him. This would almost make the character incredibly pointless if it weren’t for Gandolfini’s ability to pull off such a miserable and disposable character.

In many ways Killing Them Softly best resembles an early 70s crime thriller (probably intentional) and I couldn’t help but think of the 1973 bank robber classic The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a film that I would’ve definitely talked about in my “First Picture Show” column if I had continued with it. This is a film where things happen by the book in sequence with a little bit of commentary in the background so I have seen this setup before. This is all intentional at best because it sets up a very grimy, messy world where criminals are foolish, money isn’t in abundance so any sum will do, and the notion of American ideals is about as bitter as the next one.

The political talking points of this film are open to interpretation as it takes place right before the 2008 election and while it may come off as against the current administration you have to consider the views of the main character at best who doesn’t share any strong beliefs about the country he lives and breathes in. Indeed, the last line of the film, uttered by Cogan, could easily sum up 21st century America, “America isn’t a country it’s a business, now fucking pay me!”

As brutally honest and potentially one sided as that statement may be, Jackie Cogan is a character that much like its film doesn’t give a damn about what you expect and his freewheeling nature only exemplifies his cool motif. Cogan is a man who wraps everything up in a little bow, always thinking of potential consequences and never leaving a trail. He prefers to kill his victims softly-meaning from afar- to avoid any emotional connection i.e. victims pleading or calling for their mothers in desperation. Brad Pitt plays him with a Zen mentality similar to how we have seen him in some of his best roles but you can’t help but find him unlikable mainly because he doesn’t give a rat’s ass about anything other than the monetary value of his duty yet he is not particularly vicious in nature only in action.

What makes the film at times the most frustrating is some of the obvious and also less obvious approaches the film takes to telling its story. It’s a very conventional story with an underlying narrative of economic and social distress amongst the characters that beats you over the head silly with itself. The film is laced throughout with an underscored mix of cliché soundtrack choices i.e. the heroin scene between Russell and Frankie has the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” playing over top of it, and political speeches from around the time of the election that darts in and out of the soundtrack so much that it’s almost screaming “political upheaval.” The film also tricks the potential of snappy Tarantino esque dialogue by being bare bones. If you watch a Tarantino film you know the dialogue is snappy and direct when it comes in between all the biggest moments but here we are subjected to some of the most mundane of conversations playing up the overall plainness and simplicity of the characters. The dialogue only gets lifted to a level of craft thanks in part to Pitt’s portrayal of Cogan and he gets the best lines even if the best lines feel like the worst.

The violence of Killing Them Softly is very punctual and thankfully infrequent to the story. The mercy kills hit the point and are very grim but not overly excessive. One hit in the film is slowed down to a very mesmerizing if not excruciating length with bullets spilling through cheeks, and heads crashing into car windshields like no one’s business. Make no mistake when the violence happens it has punch to it and is normally timed at a level that is almost humorous. The point here is everything is a bit cynical in this world so the eventual fates of a lot of the characters seem expected but still grim and almost amusingly tragic. Besides the aforementioned slowed down hit there are shots that just send the brain into a seizure of annoyance including a prolonged dialogue sequence that drifts in and out through the eyes of a heroin addict.

This is where some can easily like and dive into the film because we are clearly immersed in a world that has no cinematic code (minus some wonderful cinematography) and personally doesn’t care if you hope there is and for that I admire it. However, I can see as clear as day where this film frustrates the nerves and everything just kind of happens and the film calls it a day. Andrew Dominik clearly wanted the film to be that way and that is fine for some but for others Killing Them Softly is going to be a very obnoxious film to watch. Just as Drive pulled out the same punches a little over a year ago, Killing Them Softly is an unresting film that tells it like it is with a strong eye for handcraftsmanship but one that ultimately doesn’t give a shit with how it got the tools to do it or who is looking at the work.

Rating: 6 out of 10 (Good, far from great)